Years ago, when I began debating the truth of Christianity, skeptics would occasionally attack my viewpoint by asserting that if I hadn’t examined all of the other religions of the world I couldn’t know that Christianity was true. According to the members of this group (whom I will hereinafter call Theological Travel Agents), I couldn’t possibly know whether Christianity was the best religion unless I had scoured the entire religious and philosophical landscape looking under every rock and bush to see whether there might be something more worthy of belief buried in that vast religious/intellectual landscape.
Certainly, there is some truth to the notion that unless one searches beyond what is ordinary in her experience she may miss something that is vastly superior to what she believed to be true prior to obtaining additional data. For example, when I grew up in the Midwest, I thought I knew what foods were good to eat and which weren’t. But when I later moved to California and still later to New Mexico, I experienced an entirely new array of tastes and learned that what I thought was good food wasn’t necessarily the best. Today, I would argue that the best and most unique tastes can be found in the green chile wonders cooked only in New Mexico. However, there is still much of the world I have never visited, and some little corner of this great blue ball might have some delicacy so exquisite that the green chile based foods I presently find so delicious won’t even belong in the same ballpark. So, of course, we all learn from experience.
At the same time, just because experience shows that we learn some things are different and perhaps even better when we explore the world beyond our usual culture, that doesn’t necessarily mean that touring the world is necessary for everything. Even in areas of preferences like foods, we may have the best from the very outset, and exploring the entire world of thought will only bring us back to where we started. For example, if I am correct that the best and most unique tastes can be found in the green chile creations of the chefs of New Mexico, then isn’t it also true that those who have lived and enjoyed those culinary creations their whole lives won’t find something better if they venture to other parts of the world? In other words, they already have the best and traveling the world may give them more data, but the data will only confirm what they already knew.
The Theological Travel Agents could have had multiple reasons for wanting me to try to travel around the religious/intellectual world looking at other religions. The first possible reason turns out to be nefarious, but the second possible reason seems to reside in ignorance.
I don’t know, but I suspect that the primary reason that the Theological Travel Agents encouraged me to examine the other world religions wasn’t to learn which was the most true. Rather, they were asking me to investigate these religions in hopes that I would become confused about the truth of Christianity by the variety of alternative thoughts and beliefs. This is a common tact among people engaged in covering politics in the news. As an example, not long ago the local news covered a story about the cutbacks in the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) due to budget constraints. One of the cutbacks was a reduction in the number of counselors employed by the school district to provide counseling services for teachers. The news, of course, found a teacher who was distraught over the cut in the counseling services who was able to tell the audience that the counseling services were needed, and a cutback would be very bad for the teachers. Now, I personally find no problem at all in cutting back counseling services for teachers. Do they need counseling from time to time? I would be surprised if they didn’t because no matter what group of people you examine you will find that a certain percentage of them would benefit from counseling. So, I totally agree that there is a need for these services, but that isn’t the real question. The question that needs to be answered is an economic one: given the limited supply of resources (i.e., money), what is the most efficient allocation of those resources which still accomplishes the main purpose of the organization (educating children)? Having counselors would definitely be helpful, but so would school-funded babysitting, a full work out facility in every school, a full cafeteria with school-paid health foods for teachers in each school, and a deep-tissue massage therapist on call. All of these things would be helpful, but are they the most efficient use of the limited cash available in light of the school’s purpose?
By broadcasting a one-sided human interest story about how a particular teacher was helped by the school-paid counselors, the news has given a boost to those who favor continuing the school-funded counseling services for teachers without considering the underlying economic issue. And this is what newspapers do: when presenting an issue with which the editors disagree, use human interest stories to confuse the issue. No matter what is being proposed, it is always possible to find people either helped or hurt by the present state of affairs. Show the viewpoint that opposes what the editors believe to be correct.
Likewise, I believe the primary purpose of those who encouraged me to look at other religions was the same as the editors, i.e., they wanted me to see how other people were helped by their religions or religious beliefs as a means of convincing me that Christianity isn’t the only good religion. But as with the school counselors, I am not saying and have never said that other religions can’t help people or do good for them. I am certain that people have been helped in many ways by many of the alternative religious beliefs and communities. But just because the people can be helped by these alternative religions/religious communities, like the teachers are helped by the counselors, is not the real question. Whereas the question in the case of the schools was one of economics, the question in the case of the religions is one of truth. And this leads to the second, less nefarious reason for wanting me to tour the world of religious/intellectual beliefs: a confusion about the term religious “belief.”
I think that the majority of the Theological Travel Agents – those acting with a good motive – were hoping that I would discover that the reason I believed in Christianity was only because that is the culture in which I was raised. They were reasoning that if I examined the other religions of the world and observed how strongly others believed in those religions that I would see that religious belief wasn’t really truth but rather merely cultural belief disguised as truth. Returning to my food metaphor, I would find that my beliefs (green chile based foods) aren’t any better or worse than other types of beliefs – it is only that I lived in a place that thought that they were the best and therefore adopted that viewpoint.
Regardless of the motive, the Theological Travel Agents are right only if religious belief is, in fact, merely belief. If it is no more than a preference for one type of food over another or one type of god over another, then they would be correct in contending that I need to look over the whole world to see all of the other religions because it would be possible to find one that better strikes my fancy. However, if religious belief is more than just belief, if it is rooted in a true view of the universe that cannot change from place to place by my preferences, then there is no need to examine the entire religious landscape looking for the true religion if I have already found it.
So, this leads to the important question: Is religious belief a matter of preference or truth?
While the Theological Travel Agents (and, in fact, all skeptics) want Christians to believe that their “beliefs” are nothing more than beliefs on the level of preferring one sport over another, religion is a very different thing. It does make truth claims about the world. Religions make claims about whether God exists and how we come into right relationship with him, how the universe came to be and its nature, who/what is man, the meaning (if any) of life, what is good, and what happens to people when we die. Moreover, the religions of the world give strikingly different answers to these questions, and in many ways Christianity gives the most unique answers to these questions of any other religion except the religion of Atheism. Consequently, it is not possible that all religions have truth (unless truth is completely relative – which is isn’t but that’s a different post for a different day). So, since religions claim to hold truth claims, and since they cannot all be correct, it is incumbent on the true seeker to determine which religion, if any, has the truth.
Now, let’s return to the original question: Does one need to examine all of the religions of the world to know that Christianity is true? If Christianity were merely a preference like which flavor of ice cream is best, then one would need to tour the entire world of more than 10,000 religions to determine which most suited the fancy of the person choosing their religion du jour. But since religious belief is not simply belief – since it is a factual claim about truth and reality – one can reach the correct conclusion by looking only at one religion if they start with the true religion that can stand up to inquiry. Since Christianity makes both scientific and historic claims, it is capable of being verified. If a person determines that Christianity is true based upon a reasonable review of its claims (not the unrealistic demands put on it by skeptics like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, see e.g., The Extraordinary Claims Maxim: Toward Rational Understanding of Evidence; Back to the Classics: ECREP! Golden Oldie of apologetics; Ferment on the ECREE Ploy: Extraordinary Claims and Propaganda; Skepticism -- No Longer a Process; Now a Conclusion), then one need travel no further. After all, if I believe that it has been more than 100 years since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, I can confirm that with one reliable source and I don’t need to look at every other sports almanac to determine if what I have already confirmed to be true is really false. I can rely on one quality source.
So, do I need to review every single one of the 10,000 religions in the world to determine which is true? No, I just need to determine that the one that I do review is true. If it is true, I have no more need to investigate other religions than I do to investigate further that racism is wrong.